Aurora Magazine

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Lensa: A Storm in a Teacup?

Are the criticisms that Lensa has garnered warranted?
Published 15 Dec, 2022 02:22pm

Have you noticed that all of a sudden, your ‘friends’ – or the people you follow – on social media have started to share some really great profile photos of themselves that look retro and modern? Chances are they are using Lensa – the app that is the current flavour of the day, and which is a little similar to what Prisma was a few years ago. (Remember that app?).

Lensa is a photo editing app that uses AI, and is actually a product of Prisma Labs (according to several accounts it has been around since 2016-18). Nevertheless, it was not until recently that Lensa’s popularity increased exponentially when it introduced a ‘Magic Avatar’ feature that employs a ‘stable diffusion image synthesis model’ to create a multitude of thematic avatars for people using AI. Once a user uploads up to 10 selfies (the app specifies which types), the app creates thematic avatars which are actually extremely eye-catching and realistic. However, it is on the expensive side – 100 avatars cost around Rs 1,300.

After a bit of inner debate about whether or not to spend the aforesaid Rs 1,300, I decided to bite the bullet and paid for the app’s avatar feature. The themes it created were Superhero (kinda okay), Stylish (they really weren’t!), Mystical (pretty cool) Sci-Fi (out of this world) Cyborg (colourful to say the least – it had me in shocking pink and fluorescent colours) and Rock Star (undeniably cool and ego feeding).

I am not the only one to have succumbed to the charms of Lensa, as countless celebrities and ordinary individuals have also been taken by the app and have shared their newfound avatars – with reels and music to boot.

However, all is not hunky dory with the app (is anything?) as it has already been criticised by many people.

The first major criticism comes from digital artists who say that their styles are being used to create the avatars and in in some cases the names of certain artists appear on the avatars created by Lensa. In response, Lensa released a series of tweets earlier this month repudiating this.

One of the Tweets that was specific to copyright infringements was: “To sum up, AI produces unique images based on the principles derived from data, but it can't ideate and imagine things on its own. As cinema didn't kill theatre and accounting software hasn't eradicated the profession, AI won't replace artists but can become a great assisting tool.”

Another stated: “We also believe that the growing accessibility of AI-powered tools would only make man-made art in its creative excellence more valued and appreciated, since any industrialisation brings more value to handcrafted works.”

This is not where the criticism ends. Several users have reported that the images created by Lensa are hypersexual – as some people said they received nude avatars as well. (This was not the case with me – although there were some shirtless pics. Hey – they gave me muscular arms and actual pecs, so who am I to complain?). I would like to add that Lensa’s photos did not make me thin – in most cases – or fairer, which does go to their credit in my view.

This said, several women who uploaded pics of their younger selves and said they had been sexualised (Lensa in its terms and conditions states that minors’ photos should not be uploaded). In an article on Wired, Olivia Snow writes: “Lensa’s terms of service instruct users to submit only appropriate content containing “no nudes” and “no kids, adults only.” And yet, many users – primarily women – have noticed that even when they upload modest photos, the app not only generates nudes but also ascribes cartoonishly sexualized features, like sultry poses and gigantic breasts to their images. I, for example, received several fully nude results despite uploading only headshots. The sexualisation was also often racialized: Nearly a dozen women of colour told me that Lensa whitened their skin and anglicized their features, and one woman of Asian descent told me that in the photos “where I don’t look white they literally gave me ahegao [Japanese pornography which uses exaggerated facial expressions] face.”

Benj Edwards in Ars Tehnica adds: “Meanwhile, the same sexualisation issue didn't appear in images of men uploaded to the Magic Avatar feature. In the MIT Technology Review, Melissa Heikkilä wrote, "My avatars were cartoonishly pornified, while my male colleagues got to be astronauts, explorers, and inventors.”

Yet, despite all the criticisms, the app has been downloaded at least 10 million times (according to Google Play) and has a rating of 4.3 – all of which goes to show that its popularity doesn’t seem to be waning. What remains to be seen is whether or not it will be a passing fad like. I, for one, am tempted to spend another Rs 1,300 for another batch of 100 photos. But then again, perhaps I don’t have a life.